Dynamist Blog

Glamour, Identification, and What Star Trek Can Teach Feminists about the Appeal of Fashion Magazines

Star_Trek_NewWorlds_Tobias_Richter One of the first and most interesting reviews of The Power of Glamour is this article from The New Inquiry, where author Autumn Whitefield-Madrano applies my analysis to her own concerns about how "idealized media images of unattainable beauty" affect women. It was a pleasure to see my work intelligently applied to produced a more nuanced understanding of this controversial subject, especially since one of my quirkier examples proved key to her conceptual leap:

Postrel cites Star Trek as an example of something glamorous, which might strike many as absurd, given its distinct lack of glamorous tropes. But it was this example that cemented for me the relationship between glamour and the viewer—and if you had memories of your 11-year-old loner brother sitting on the couch in his Star Trek ensign uniform, staying up late to finish his own handwritten Next Generation scripts, you’d understand too. A bit of an outcast at that age but with a longing for community and quiet appreciation of the skills he had to offer the world, my brother couldn’t wholly identify with life aboard the starship Enterprise, but he saw enough of its world in himself—and he saw enough of himself in the values of that world—that it became far more than mere entertainment to him, even if he couldn’t spell out why. Star Trek wasn’t remotely glamorous to me, but it was to him.

When I think of my brother’s longing today, I’m struck by how much he yearned to truly identify with that world (even though, like all chimera of glamour, it was a world that couldn’t exist). In a certain light, his obsession with Star Trek becomes heartbreaking: a child wanting so badly to live in a world where he’d have a place that he literally wrote it himself when the prewritten fantasy ran out. But I also see it as an indicator of the ways he was thriving. He took up trombone because that’s what Commander Riker played. He learned how to save his child’s income in order to buy entrance to Trekker conventions once my parents became exasperated with the constant ticket requests. He was writing entire hourlong performance scripts—a passion that stuck around long enough for him to host a radio theater show today. You could say Star Trek held up an unattainable ideal that he’d never be able to join—or you could say it spurred him to better himself. Both can be fallouts of glamour.
As a feminist writer who wants women to feel as emotionally whole as possible, I’ve spent my fair share of time fretting over idealized media images of unattainable beauty. But in writing about beauty and in talking to dozens of women about the role looks play in their lives, my mind-set has slowly shifted over the years. I can no longer believe that women are such passive, robotic consumers as to continue to buy women’s magazines if they just make us feel like crap—nor do I naively believe that women bathe in these images because we feel fantastic while doing so. Looking at the question of idealized images through the lens of Postrel’s articulation of glamour, there’s a more satisfying conclusion here: We are drawn to images of idealized beauty not out of self-loathing but out of longing; we are compelled by images not only because we compare ourselves to them but because we identify with them. If we didn’t identify with those images to some degree—even a whisper of one—they would cease to have any resonance with us. Yet if we identified too much, we’d have less to strive for.

Read the rest of the review here. Beauty Bytes blogger Meli Pennington linked to the review with her own Star Trek memories: "As a fellow Sister-to-a-Trekkie myself, I never thought of this before, but it fits in with the glamourous dream worlds that I do know: fashion, old Hollywood movies, and pop stardom. And as each of these worlds holds up a different ideal, each can inspire us (or frustrate us in our inability) to change in different ways."

Interestingly, to get a Star Trek image that captured the glamour the show holds for fans I couldn't just use a still, since as Autumn notes the look and feel of Star Trek isn't obviously glamorous. I went instead to a fan, although one who produces digital imagery for a living. The image above, which I licensed for reproduction in the book and related materials like this post, was created by Tobias Richter of The Light Works. (You are not free to reproduce it without separate permission.)

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